I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the early church, as depicted in Acts. One particular story keeps coming back to me, that of Cornelius and Peter in Acts 10. Cornelius is a Roman and, as we would now describe, a Gentile (although this is a concept and a term that was not yet used at the time of the events of this story, for further discussion of this see Rosen-Zvi and Ophir, 2015). He was visited by an Angel who told him to send for Peter. The next day, Peter was praying and had a vision:
“He saw heaven opened and something like a large sheet being let down to earth by its four corners. It contained all kinds of four-footed animals, as well as reptiles and birds. Then a voice told him, “Get up, Peter. Kill and eat.” “Surely not, Lord!” Peter replied. “I have never eaten anything impure or unclean.” The voice spoke to him a second time, “Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.” This happened three times, and immediately the sheet was taken back to heaven.” (Acts 10:11-16, NIV).
As Peter was pondering his vision, Cornelius’ men arrived to invite him to their master’s house. Despite it being forbidden for a Jew to associate with those of other nations, Peter went with them, declaring to Cornelius “You are well aware that it is against our law for a Jew to associate with or visit a Gentile. But God has shown me that I should not call anyone impure or unclean. So when I was sent for, I came without raising any objection”. (Acts 10: 28-29, NIV). He then began sharing the Gospel, and those there who were not circumcised Jews began to receive the gifts of the Spirit for the first recorded time. This is a landmark passage for the universality of the gift of Christ.
It is also a landmark passage for other reasons. This is not the end of the story. In Acts 11 Peter returns to the Jerusalem and declares his change of stance, “If then God gave the same gift to them as he gave to us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who am I that I could stand in Gods way?” (Acts 11:17, ESV) We are told the church then rejoiced at the goodness of God, that despite much historical tension between Jews and non-Jews, the redemption and new world order they had been promised was also open to those they had previously called enemy. No wonder Paul needed to write so many letters on how to get along!
Talking of Paul, he enters the tale in Acts 15, having already begun successfully building church communities amongst non-Jewish communities. Despite Peter’s lead, there is a faction amongst the Jews calling for non-Jews joining the community in Jerusalem to live by Jewish laws, including undergoing circumcision. Following much debate, and witness from Peter, Paul and Barnabus, it is decided it is enough to ask non-Jews to avoid certain behaviours that would make them ceremonially unclean, and therefore difficult for the conservative Jews to reconcile associating with them (Acts 15:19-20) – do note this is a concession for the conservative Jews in the spirit of finding a way to live peaceably together, not anything to do with God or Christ; indeed during the discussion Peter declares
“And God, who knows the heart, bore witness to them, by giving them to Holy Spirit just as he did to us, and he made no distinction between us and them, having cleansed their hearts by faith. Now, therefore, why are you putting God to the test by placing a yoke on the neck of the disciples that neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear? But we believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will” (Acts 15:8-11, ESV).
And on the story goes. The church grows, formalises, and as it does so more issues arise that need to be debated, discussed and decided upon. I don’t think it has ever stopped, and there are certainly plenty of these issues still at hand today that need to be debated, discussed and decided upon. Paul Bayes, Bishop of Liverpool points out there was no scriptural precedent for the Jerusalem community to follow on this point of accepting non-Jews, but they trusted the evidence of the Holy Spirit alive in the people before them, and in the witness of trusted leaders discerning the truth of their encounters with God (ed. Ozanne, 2016).
I pray that, when tackling the big thorny issues of today such as sexuality, fitness to lead, divorce and remarriage, all may be mindful of the recorded words of Peter that God has shown me that I should not call anyone impure, remembering God knows the heart, makes no distinction, and extends Their grace to everyone – who are we to place our own judgements in Their way?
Peace be with you.
Ozanne, J. (2015) Journeys in Grace and Truth: Revisiting Scripture and Sexuality. London: Ekklesia
Rosen-Zvi, I. and Ophir, A. (2015) “Paul and the Invention of the Gentiles.” Jewish Quarterly Review, vol. 105 no. 1, p. 1-41. Project MUSE, doi:10.1353/jqr.2015.0001.